Jason's Reviews > The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917-1918

The Last Days of Innocence by Meirion Harries
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's review
Jan 18, 2010

really liked it
Read from January 15 to 25, 2010

A meaty book with a narrow focus. You will learn a lot about America in WWI. The book adroitly interlaces chapters between Americans on the battlefield and Americans in the Homeland. It describes American political and cultural proclivities during the first few years of the war, while we as a nation were observing, and the Allies were engaged. It then discusses our entry into the war--mobilization, training, and fielding of Pershing's Army. It details the horror of battlefield maneuver. And it adequately explains the peace process and economic fallout from the war.

Personally--and despite that I'm an active duty Air Force officer--I find the homeland wartime experience a bit more interesting than battlefield contact. Combat is force on force, and no matter how many historians rework history, there is a limited amount of perspectives you can achieve about a specific battle or campaign. The Homeland predicament, however, provides the historian with a much larger theater of interpretation: economy, culture, politics, etc. You can find each in microcosm in the military, but the society at large is hundreds of millions of people acting on millions of institutions for hundreds of thousands of reasons, and this produces a much more complex picture of things. Mobilizing a nation is a thornier issue than mobilizing an army.

Things I learned:
--- Contemplating a draft competed with shortages of expected wartime labor
--- Race issue; enlisting in the Army was first seen as a way to black man's equality, but was followed by strong dissension in all races
--- Bolshevism in America spread rapidly and was looked upon, starry-eyed, by many classes
--- The US had a robust internal propaganda machine to support all aspects of the war effort, and their practices were highly questionable
--- Military intelligence routinely reported on levels of US patriotism
--- There were thousands of men employed as 'four minute men' whose only job was to tour the nation and give 'hurrah' speeches inbetween movies, at the street corner, rallies, town halls, parades, etc.
--- A large German-American population made for a strange kind of paranoia in small town America
--- The US propaganda machine created a spy-fever throughout America, which led to interesting bans and renaming of people and institutions
--- Sedition Act
--- Cultural phenomenon of vigilantism endorsed by the Justice Dept
--- The US single-handedly kept the Allies solvent by lending billions of dollars
--- The Communist scare in 1919 was the greatest in America since McCarthyism
--- Resurgence of the KKK
--- No agreed upon veteran benefits until 1924, and no cash payments until 1945
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